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Secure communication is when two entities are communicating and do not want a third party to listen in. For that, they need to communicate in a way not susceptible to eavesdropping or interception. Secure communication includes means by which people can share information with varying degrees of certainty that third parties cannot intercept what was said. Other than spoken face-to-face communication with no possible eavesdropper, it is probably safe to say that no communication is guaranteed secure in this sense, although practical obstacles such as legislation, resources, technical issues (interception and encryption), and the sheer volume of communication serve to limit surveillance.
Telecommunication networks and the Internet have made communicating with people easier than ever, but have also made surveillance more prevalent. Without taking extra steps to protect your privacy, every phone call, text message, email, instant message, video and audio chat, and social media message could be vulnerable to eavesdroppers.
Often the most privacy-protective way to communicate with others is in person, without computers or phones being involved at all. Because this isn’t always possible, the next best thing is to use end-to-end encryption.
End-to-end encryption ensures that information is turned into a secret message by its original sender (the first “end”), and decoded only by its final recipient (the second “end”). This means that no one can “listen in” and eavesdrop on your activity, including wifi cafe snoops, your Internet service provider, and even the website or app you are using itself. Somewhat counter-intuitively, just because you access messages in an app on your phone or information from a website on your computer does not mean that the app company or website platform itself can see them. This is a core characteristic of good encryption: even the people who design and deploy it cannot themselves break it.
Under the hood, end-to-end encryption works like this: When two people want to communicate via end-to-end encryption (for example, Akiko and Boris) they must each generate pieces of data, called keys. These keys can be used to turn data that anyone can read into data that can be only read by someone who has a matching key. Before Akiko sends a message to Boris, she encrypts it to Boris's key so that only Boris can decrypt it. Then she sends this encrypted message across the Internet. If anyone is eavesdropping on Akiko and Boris—even if they have access to the service that Akiko is using to send this message (such as her email account)—they will only see the encrypted data and will be unable to read the message. When Boris receives it, he must use his key to decrypt it into a readable message.